All the Little Lights, Arcola Theatre

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by guest critic Gregory Forrest

Hilarious and heart-breaking in equal measure, Jane Upton’s work is a darkly realistic shock to the system. Nominated for Best Play at the Writers’ Guild of Great Britain Awards 2017 and joint winner of the 2016 George Devine Award, All the Little Lights is an astonishing achievement.

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Killology, Royal Court

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I have a fairly robust constitution and am not particularly squeamish, but Gary Owen’s latest had me trying not to be sick on Meg Vaughan’s bag on my right, or the empty seats to my left and in front of me. They were empty because some people walked out in the first half, and others didn’t return after the interval. That’s not to say Killology isn’t brilliant – it absolutely is. But the brutal story about fractured father/son relationships, toxic masculinity and revenge is bloody hard to watch.

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Day One at Buzzcut Festival

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Actually, it’s the second day of the live art festival at the Pearce Institute in Glasgow but due to work, I couldn’t make the opening day. So in order to save travel time, I lost by Megabus Gold virginity and took the overnight sleeper coach. Unceremoniously dumped in Buchanan bus station at 6:30 am after an intermittent night’s sleep, I chugged a coffee (after being laughed at for attempting to order a flat white) in the station caf before heading to my digs, then navigating an unfamiliar city’s public transport across town to the Pearce Institute.

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Love, Lies and Taxidermy and Scorch, Edinburgh Festival Fringe

First loves: awkward, hormonal milestones of young adulthood that make you feel like you’re on top of the world in a bubble that’s just the two of you. That is, unless you’re a trans or gender fluid teen who is still exploring gender identity, or someone with extensive family problems. But issues like these, when married with a youthful story of falling in love, make for some powerful and moving theatre.

Love, Lies and Taxidermy compares falling in love for the first time to living in a film. With narration incorporating stage directions, short scenes reminiscent of quick cuts and a wonderfully ridiculous conclusion, the play feels like a teen romcom, but has enough substance to ensure it isn’t total frivolity. It’s fluffy, sweet and addresses how social class can effect young love.

Set in Myrthyr Tydfil where all road lead to Tesco, Ash and Valentine meet at hospital when they’re both waiting to see if they qualify for paid medical trials. Ash’s dad is on the verge of bankruptcy, and Val’s parents are separated so he wants to send them on a cruise in hope they will fall in love again. The tentatively begin dating, but life has a way of interfering with their time together. Ash has other ideas to earn some quick cash courtesy of an aspiring filmmaker college mate, but devoted Val vehemently opposes them. Cue a mad dash adventure to rescue Ash from her poor choices and live happily ever after.

There are a few lose ends in the narrative that get forgotten in favour of the “boy rescues girl” plot line, like Val’s quest for money for his parents. They could easily be trimmed to get to the point faster, or developed further to make a more fully-formed story.

The cast of three display remarkable energy as they play all the roles. Remy Beasley and Andy Rush are Ash and Val, the young couple who clearly fancy the pants off each other. Rush, though the hero, goes against the stereotypical popular lad who wins the girl through violence and strength. Awkward and geeky, his devotion to the bold and brassy Beasley is utterly adorable. Beasley’s confidence also goes against the romcom trope; she most definitely does not want to be rescued even though she doesn’t want to make the money in the way she has chosen.

The ending, however unrealistic, charms and delights. Though there is no set to portray the described splendour, the text more than makes up for its absence. The intimacy of the Roundabout suits this play well, though a larger venue would give more scope for design.

Scorch takes a different tone from Love, Lies and Taxidermy, though it also has a generous helping of youthful optimism about love. Kez, a bio-girl who dresses as a boy when not at school Orr home, has met Jules online and is smitten despite the “cool dude” exterior. This story has a darker outcome what with the complexities of gender identity and disclosure as it reinterprets the classic coming-of-age tale.

Kez is perky, accepting and generally at peace with her discomfort in a female body. Amy McAllister embodies the role with verve and charisma, making the audience sympathetic to consequences that arise from not telling Jules that she has a female, strap-on wearing body. The character’s good intentions are sweet, but not enough to save her.

Kez grows up quickly over the course of the story, and the Internet gives her a wealth of information to help her explore her gender identity and legal options. Her social media accounts facilitate meeting girls, and it’s all too easy to set up alternative profiles that portray her as a boy. It also helps her find a local support group, so the sword that is growing up in the digital age is well and truly double-sided.

This is a well-formed script with several layers. Whilst it is a powerful piece of storytelling as a solo performance, introducing additional actors to take on other roles would add depth to Kez’s experiences. McAllister uses the space well, though the opportunity to fully engage with the audience is missed.

Both productions are generally excellent examples of storytelling. The differing perspectives on teenage love are delightfully nostalgic and provocative without becoming twee or trite. The Roundabout enhances their intimacy, but limits scope for design and staging. These two plays would be served just as well, if not better, in a larger space that enables them to extend their production values.

The Play’s the Thing UK is committed to covering fringe and progressive theatre in London and beyond. It is run entirely voluntarily and needs regular support to ensure its survival. For more information and to help The Play’s the Thing UK provide coverage of the theatre that needs reviews the most, visit its patreon.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream in Gotham, Edinburgh Festival Fringe

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The American High School Theatre Festival is wonderful. It gives school students from the US and Canada the opportunity to perform at the fringe as well as travel abroad, and is often the first chance participants have to travel outside their home country. Teacher-directors also have a platform for showcasing their skills in front of an international audience, so it’s sad that these student productions are often ignored by press. Shakespeare is regularly produced along with a fairly standard programme of musicals and plays for young people, though the bard gives directors more o to be flexible with the text. Whilst these show are far from the standard you’d expect from professionals, they are enthusiastically executed and sheer joy in performing is evident throughout.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream in Gotham by Caddo Parish Magnet High School in Louisiana is one of the festival’s offerings, and whilst it certainly has its issues, it has plenty of merits. A comic book world could certainly work for the action-driven, over-the-top fights and comedy, but director Patti Reeves only consistently applies it to the fairy world. She changes names and locations from Shakespeare’s original which is hard on the ear to begin with, but soon becomes less so. Adapting pronunciation so syllables fit Shakespeare’s verse would minimise this. The lovers remain unadapted – a lost opportunity for an added layer of humour and clashing with the gritty caped crusaders.

Reeves has innate instinct for physical comedy and a clear skill in developing that in her students. There are plenty of chuckles to be had in the mechanicals’ scenes that steal the show. The performances are hammy and over-the-top, but that’s the sort that works best for these characters who are rooted in Commedia stock characters and slapstick. She has some wonderfully confident pupils in her cast, with Echo Patriquin as Helena and Scott Martin as Flute/Thisby the most consistent examples.

Though most of the performances are typically pedestrian school fare and the concept has potential to be developed with further time and resources (something teachers generally lack), the dedication these young people show for Shakespeare is truly inspiring and a great trip down memory lane for anyone who found their love of theatre whilst at school.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream in Gotham runs through 10th August.

The Play’s the Thing UK is committed to covering fringe and progressive theatre in London and beyond. It is run entirely voluntarily and needs regular support to ensure its survival. For more information and to help The Play’s the Thing UK provide coverage of the theatre that needs reviews the most, visit its patreon.

Russian Dolls, King’s Head Theatre

Russian Dolls at King's Head Theatre, Stephanie Fayerman and Mollie Lambert_1 © Andreas Grieger

Camelia’s just got out of young offenders’ but her mum never turned up to collect her, so she’s back to looking after herself. Hilda is a blind elderly woman fending of her goddaughter’s attempts to move her to Basingstoke. When Camelia robs Hilda after tricking into believing she’s covering for her carer, the two end up influencing each other much more than ever expected. Kate Lock’s Russian Dolls tells the fraught story of an unlikely dependency that is doomed to end badly for both women. Lock’s characters are fantastic, and their scenes together are tense and charged with moments of genuine tenderness. In between the scenes are narrative monologues that, whilst providing necessary information, are awkwardly addressed to the ether and disrupt the story’s momentum.

Stephanie Fayerman as Hilda and Mollie Lambert as Camelia are a volatile pair. The energy between them is either stormy or potentially so; the tension makes them wonderfully watchable. Their few scenes of relaxed openness towards the other are fleeting, but hugely rewarding and loaded with tough love. Both performances are excellent, and the dependency on the other is great to watch.

There is no sentimentality towards young people, the care system or aging in Lock’s script. The lack of happy ending is a touch disappointing, but it’s accurate. The stories of young people from broken homes actually managing to turn their lives around are rare considering the 69,540 young people in care as of March last year. Every now and again an “inspiring” case hits the news, but for the majority of these children, their lives are part of an endless cycle of poverty, abuse, drugs and jail time. Well done to Lock for not going the easy route with her narrative.

Structurally, the script is quite simple and there are large, frustrating chronological jumps that skips huge sections of both characters’ emotional journeys. This could easily be a full length, two-act play and would work very well as such. Provided the current ending is kept, a 2 hour or so build up would make it all the more devastating.

Russian Dolls, winner of the Adrian Pagan Award and shortlisted for the Bruntwood Prize, is a bolshy play full of life in all of its glorious imperfections. It’s an honest look at the care system and its flaws, but the actors’ characterization and electric relationship is the highlight of this new play.

Russian Dolls runs through 23 April.

The Play’s the Thing UK is committed to covering fringe and progressive theatre in London and beyond. It is run entirely voluntarily and needs regular support to ensure its survival. For more information and to help The Play’s the Thing UK provide coverage of the theatre that needs reviews the most, visit its patreon.

The Broke ‘N’ Beat Collective, Battersea Arts Centre

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Kids have it tough, especially if they’re poor. Decreasing social mobility, higher costs of education and living, and decreasing welfare are trapping our future generations in inescapable cycles of poverty. They are just as aspirational as young people from more privileged backgrounds and aware of the opportunities they don’t have. They are angry, frustrated and lack the opportunity to constructively express their feelings that often go completely disregarded by more comfortable members of society.

Theatre-Rites and 20 Stories High, seeing validity in their voices, worked with numerous young people in this demographic to devise a gig-theatre show that shares experiences of being a poor teenager in Britain today. The Broke ‘N’ Beat Collective is an empowering, important work that uses fantastic puppetry, mask and music to create a gloriously messy collage of young people’s concerns and issues. Structurally mirroring the rough and ready, fractured existence of urban youth culture, it rebels against theatrical and cultural preconceptions without apology for its flaws.

Elisha Howe’s (aka Elektric) soaring rhymes and Jack Hobbs (aka Hobbit) beatboxing energise the audience and establish a defiant, proud tone that carries through the show. They are not backing down, nor are B-boy Ryan Harson (aka LoGisTics) and puppeteer Mohsen Nouri. They literally zoom in on the tiny model tower blocks and street scenes of urban Britain, replicated in cardboard wonderfully extracted from the plain back wall, creating a landscape of alternating songs with monologues. These set pieces and puppets pass on the otherwise unknown life stories of young people they’ve met.

Omar is an insecure, confrontational grey hoodie that takes the whole show to find his voice. Jack’s a wannabe gangsta who knocks up Latifa (both with cartoonish, cardboard heads) and ditches her and the resulting child that reflects on how that’s shaped his life goals. Joanne is the Papergirl who cuts herself because her mum’s boyfriend abused her. There’s also the incredible Speaker Boy, a rotund, playful chap with a boombox for a head. Each puppet is as unique as the young person behind it, and just as inspiring. (Seriously, go look at the puppets’ photos in the gallery part way down the page; they are some of the most emotionally endowed bits of paper and foam I’ve ever encountered. All of these characters unashamedly demand attention with precise, evocative storytelling and a joyfully visualised presence. These stories are broadcast along side an ever-changing soundtrack with interjections of dance, banter and spoken word, simultaneously creating an atmosphere of celebration and seriousness. Though fun, it never loses the sense of the weight behind the work.

Despite the boldness in the work and the importance of its messages, there are some sloppy transitions that cause the piece to lose momentum. Elektric unnecessarily introduces each number by name, and there are some in-jokes between the performers that, whilst sweet, don’t carry energy with their small scale. This gives the whole piece a choppiness that makes it feel unfinished.

All four performers’ exemplary skillsets and vibrance are fantastic vehicles for the young people of this country seeking escape from the poverty that is so limiting to their ambition. Each moment connects to the next through a theme rather than a storyline, but the effect mirrors modern society: a bit messy, emotional and ambitious for a better life. The fun doesn’t override or trivialize the seriousness, and neither is it too weighty. The unpolished feel is very much ingrained in the gig-theatre style, and though it would be great to learn more about the characters presented, The Broke ‘N’ Beat Collective truly holds a mirror up to nature.

The Broke ‘N’ Beat Collective runs through 2 April.

The Play’s the Thing UK is committed to covering fringe and progressive theatre in London and beyond. It is run entirely voluntarily and needs regular support to ensure its survival. For more information and to help The Play’s the Thing UK provide coverage of the theatre that needs reviews the most, visit its patreon.